Wednesday, September 16, 2015

REVIEW: THE COURTESAN



Growing up between cultures definitely enriched my upbringing. I heard captivating stories from my Chinese family and I loved watching costume dramas set in Imperial China. However, one story I definitely did not hear from my mother as a child was that of Sai Jinhua. Her fascinating life as an international courtesan may not be children’s bedtime book material, but it has nevertheless been celebrated in operas, films, and other forms. Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is perhaps a first in another way as well. Curry introduces the West to this unique and multi-faceted woman, whose cross-continental escapades have become the stuff of legend.

Sai Jinhua lived in the tumultuous and intriguing turn of the twentieth century. Europe and America have made inroads upon the final dynasty of Imperial China. Curry dedicates The Courtesan to Sai Jinhua’s early years, from her tragic childhood to her rise as a Chinese icon. Jinhua is joined by a cast of largely fictional but nonetheless compelling and plausible characters. The Courtesan begins with the execution of Jinhua’s father, a mandarin who is beheaded at the command of the emperor. Her father’s first wife spitefully sells Jinhua, leading her into a house of prostitution. There she has her feet broken and bound at the hands of the madam of the house, Lao Mama. She soon begins “bed business” as soon as she turns twelve with clients multiple times her age. Fortunately, she finds camaraderie with Suyin, a maid whose friendship will sustain her for years to come. Jinhua is eventually saved from her harsh destiny when Master Hong purchases her as his concubine. When Hong is selected as the European emissary, Jinhua follows him to Europe. She resides in Palais Kinsky in Vienna, encounters the aristocracy, befriends a servant named Resi, and falls in “Great Love” with Count von Waldersee. However, her idyllic life as an exotic adventurer is interrupted when she is brought back to China and both the fate of herself and China take a drastic turn for the worse.

Curry’s detail is both sumptuous and heart-wrenching. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Curry describes Jinhua’s plight in candid, cruel detail, from the fierce piety of Timu and her Buddhist rosary to the sadism of Lao Mama, represented by her brutal emerald ring. Jinhua’s foot-binding and deflowering by Banker Chang are described in particularly gruesome detail. Yet, Jinhua’s encounter with Empress Elisabeth, excursions with Resi, and moments with Count von Waldersee are charming and beautifully portrayed. The simultaneous juxtaposition of privilege and violence in The Courtesan is reminiscent of Puccini’s unfinished opera Turandot, where his gorgeous melodies juxtapose with the title character’s icy brutality. Fans of books such as Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha will also enjoy this tale of a fascinating woman whose life extended far past her profession as a courtesan.

However, Alexanda Curry has made some interesting alterations to Jinhua’s story. In the novel, Jinhua’s venture into prostitution seems to occur earlier in her life than usually documented. Master Hong’s first wife also did not commit suicide out of jealousy in reality. Jinhua in fact did travel much of Europe besides Vienna, and the true nature of her relationship with Count von Waldersee remains unknown. Jinhua’s equally fascinating scandal-ridden later life is also not explored, including her reputed saving of Beijing using her German, later marriages, and prison sentence. However, Curry, acknowledges this in the Author’s Note, and in fact her literary choices are quite rewarding. By setting Jinhua’s European voyage solely in Vienna, Curry streamlines the plot and allows more time to explore the locale in more depth rather than flitting between cities. The interpolation and expansion of both fictional and historical characters adds emotional dimension and further drama to The Courtesan. Though potentially contentious, Curry’s creative choices result in a unique interpretation of Jinhua that is carefully constructed and thoughtfully fashioned. It is a reimagining of Jinhua which is sensitive and nuanced, while positing some interesting hypotheses for the contradictions and gaps in Jinhua’s real life story. Of special note is Curry’s idiomatic use of Mandarin in unaccented pinyin, which was a pleasant surprise for me, as I speak Mandarin. Curry also uses German in the Vienna chapter and the use of both languages further immerses the reader in the changing sights and sounds of Jinhua’s cross-cultural life.

As a great fan of historical fiction, I am sometimes disheartened by the inundation of the genre with copious amounts of Eurocentric fiction, which can tend toward the formulaic and familiar. However, Curry’s book takes a brave direction, exploring China’s vibrant tapestry of history. The Courtesan reminds me of why I fell in love with historical fiction in the first place: when it’s done well, it showcases fascinating and well-written stories that are all the more remarkable since the characters were once living, breathing human beings as we are now. The Courtesan is a fascinating opportunity to delve back into a time where bound feet, emperors, and courtesans existed – reminders of both the beauty and cruelty of the human condition that still remain today, albeit in different forms.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

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